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There is no muse, and other unsettling principles: 1 of 6 - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
There is no muse, and other unsettling principles: 1 of 6
There is no muse, and other unsettling principles
I take as my text the following:
[Dr Johnson] treats with the utmost contempt the opinion that our mental faculties depend, in some degree, upon the weather; an opinion, which they who have never experienced its truth are not to be envied, and of which he himself could not but be sensible, as the effects of weather upon him were very visible. Yet thus he declaims: ‘Surely, nothing is more reproachful to a being endowed with reason, than to resign its powers to the influence of the air, and live in dependence on the weather and the wind for the only blessings which nature has put into our power, tranquillity and benevolence. – This distinction of seasons is produced only by imagination operating on luxury. To temperance, every day is bright; and every hour is propitious to diligence. He that shall resolutely excite his faculties, or exert his virtues, will soon make himself superiour to the seasons; and may set at defiance the morning mist and the evening damp, the blasts of the east, and the clouds of the south.’
– Boswell’s Life, citing The Idler, XI.
The notion that one can write better during one season of the year than another Samuel Johnson labelled, ‘Imagination operating upon luxury.’ Another luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s own feeling about the work. There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
– Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
In the author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. You then have to marry this with a suitable ‘form’, verse or prose, short story, novel, play or whatever. When these two things click you have the author’s impulse complete. Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord….
After the pictures, came the Form. As these images sorted themselves into events (i.e., became a story) they seemed to demand no love interest and no close psychology. But the Form which excludes these things is the fairy tale. And the moment I thought of that, I fell in love with the Form itself; its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’.
– CS Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories
Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
  *** Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.
  *** A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’
– MR James, various
One mark of good verse is surprise.
  *** Atmosphere is a thing hard to describe, let alone define in legal terms. A place which has been constantly been used by actors, managers and famous people … acquires an invisible atmosphere, just as a church frequented by praying people acquires an atmosphere. We have all experienced it in our lives. We can sense it and it will not photograph.
  *** Topography is one of my chief themes in my poetry ... about the country, the suburbs and the seaside ... then there comes love … and, increasingly, the fear of death.
  *** First there is the thrilling or terrifying recollection of a place, a person or a mood which hammers inside the head saying ‘Go on! Go on! It is your duty to make a poem out of it.’ Then a line or a phrase suggests itself. Next comes the selection of a metre. I am a traditionalist in metres and I have made few experiments. The rhythms of Tennyson, Crabbe, Hawker, Dowson, Hardy, James Elroy Flecker, Moore and Hymns A & M are generally buzzing about in my brain and I choose one from these which seems to me to suit the theme....
  *** The best lines come from the Management. I generally write on the backs of envelopes and flyleaves of cheap books and gather the material together – generally all in one day. Then I type the thing out and look at it the next morning, think it’s very bad and forget about it, and it gets lost. This happens to much that I write in verse. If I do not commit what I have written to the typewriter pretty well at once, I forget what I have written, as I cannot read my own writing – nor will God be able to....
– Sir John Betjeman, various
Poetry for him is not a moral or sociological gymnastic, but a spontaneous overflow of natural feeling which directs his choice of words and informs them when found.
  *** Similarly, the quality in his poetry loosely called nostalgia is really that never-sleeping alertness to note the patina of time on things past which is the hallmark of the mature writer.
– Philip Larkin on Betjeman, The Guardian, 19 November 1959
When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
  *** All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows, that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.
– George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’
I may say I am specially pleased to be able to cite Annie Dillard here, not only because she is a brilliant expositor of the craft of writing, but because, she being American, citing her preserves me from the usual imputation of ‘Oh, Christ, it’s only doddering old Gervase Wemyss being all Colonel Blimp again’.
Perhaps I am. But I think not. (And I’m very proud that I managed to refrain from trotting out Gissing yet again.) My purpose today is to advance and to maintain certain possibly unpopular opinions and principles about the craft of writing (having no talent of mine own, I shan’t pretend to be able to impart any such. Technique, however, is a different thing altogether).
1. There is no muse. Therefore, there is no sacred chamber to prepare against her visitations.
Writing is not dependent upon the vagaries of mood or season or weather or place or background noise. Dickens and Betjeman wrote on trains. Austen wrote in the midst of genteelly jolly family uproar, parlour games, and daily life. Kipling and Chesterton wrote through any tumult. This notion that one must, darling, simply must, my dear, have a special cocoon with things positioned just so and a north light and, I don’t know, a cloisonné mouse pad or some damned thing, is utter balls. Writing isn’t a sacred trance or a sacrament or a mood or a Mysterious Communion with the Anima Mundi, it’s a bloody job, damn it all. Get on with it. Get, in fact, on yer bike. I remember – with a horror that persists even now – reading, some years ago, of an American author who, in a hardboiled equivalent to this idiocy about Having Things Just So, habitually raced out of the house, got worked up, dashed back in and typed for twenty minutes in a fine frenzy until the well ran dry again, and then repeated the process. I’m amazed he made a living at it. This sort of thing is unquestionably idleness, as well as imagination, operating upon luxury.
Now, obviously, if you’re writing on spec, and not motivated by the want to make the rent or settle a long-outstanding bill with the greengrocer so he’ll allow you into the shop before you quite starve, you can, I suppose, take your prissy, precious time and write only when you feel like it. It shan’t be worth a damn, but you can do it. (It shan’t be worth a damn for several reasons. First of all, you’ll want to edit it with far more wasted time than if you’d written it in one go, and hadn’t allowed it to become disjointed and episodic and without flow. Secondly, you’ll cock that up, that necessary editing, because you’ll remember how pleasant it was to write only when you chose, and were in a lofty mood, and you’ll therefore regard the work you did as lofty and pleasant, seeing it through the gauzy curtain of nostalgia and affection, and you’ll be blind to its manifest and manifold faults. And again, whatever overarching theme or mood or arc it might have had, you’ll have forgotten, or at least lost the immediate sense of, and the results shan’t be pretty however ruthlessly you believe you are editing it. But that’s your lookout: you can do this sort of thing if you like and haven’t the lash of need to drive you on.)
What’s more, you are not writing on spec, really, did you but know it, or as a ‘hobby’ (did you but know it). ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ said Dr Johnson, and it’s true. Either you write and post because you are seeking credit or reputation or exchange, if not in a monetised currency, or you write here as a set of five-finger exercises, against the day when you toss your MS over the transom of a publisher: into whose slush-pile it shall, due to the vices you’ve acquired by writing and posting online and being flattered for it and feeling you may write when you feel like it, inevitably sink without a trace.
This is why fests and deadlines and writing to prompts are so damned worthwhile, or should be were the ostensible requirements enforced rather better than they are. Like the need to fill the cupboards with food, these act to force you to write not when and as you like, but to order, even if you must loosen your stays and breathe deep of your smelling salts and actually buckle down and do an honest day’s work when you’d rather not, you poor, delicate flower, you.

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From: tree_and_leaf Date: October 11th, 2011 06:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

It's not an accident that they call it the office.

Writing isn’t a sacred trance or a sacrament or a mood or a Mysterious Communion with the Anima Mundi, it’s a bloody job, damn it all. Get on with it.

Although, come to think of it, the same thing applies to sacraments (liturgy as the work of the people and All That). I wouldn't dream for a moment of denying that sacraments are channels of divine grace and dependent on the priesthood of Christ, but if you'd rather stay in bed than get up and say mass, then the sacrament won't come to you in a dream instead.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 11th, 2011 07:00 pm (UTC) (Link)


A seven-fold Amen.
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